From Ravenous and Memento, to The Hard Word and The Proposition, Guy Pearce has shown himself again and again to be the posterboy for dirty, grim tales of crime and violence. These titles – where he typically embodies gaunt, unpredictable men – showcase the actor’s preternatural ability to evoke both extreme emotion and remarkable restraint.
In The Rover, this vibrant package is beautifully harnessed by director David Michôd, whose follow-up to his critical smash Animal Kingdom (which also featured Pearce) proves itself to be a dark, hellish tale. It’s a movie that is admirable in a certain sense, but one that never becomes truly absorbing emotionally.
The Rover is defined by deceptive simplicity. It’s ten years after a financial collapse. Our location: the wilds of Australia, which in The Rover are so barren that they make the surface of the moon look inviting. A man (Pearce) sits alone at a bar. Suddenly, three thugs appear on the landscape. They are fleeing the scene of a crime, where the fourth member of the gang, a twitchy half-wit (played by a defanged Robert Pattinson), lies wounded. After the criminals’ car goes out, they commandeer the ride of Pearce’s unnamed character. Yet, very quickly they realize that they’ve fucked with the wrong guy.
The tagline for The Rover is as deceptively simple as its plot. “Fear the man with nothing left to lose.” This is an apt summation of the Pearce character, who is a marvelous study in the art of subtraction. Pearce’s man spends a majority of the film in silence, with his lined, heavily-bearded face remaining inexpressive, and his eyes doing all of the emotive heavy-lifting.
Now, to make a statement like that is to trade in cliches. Yet, in the case of Pearce’s man it has never been more applicable. Even when examining the rest of Pearce’s filmography – which features many a tight-lipped brute – one finds The Rover to perhaps be his apogee in regards to this type of performance. Consider a scene early on in the film, where Pearce’s character, after running across Pattinson’s wounded simpleton (whose name is Rey), takes the younger man to a doctor. After the physician has tended to him, she turns to Pearce’s silent man and asks him kindly if he would like her to take a look at some of his poorly healed wounds.
Pearce’s character’s response here is astounding. Complex, implosive and quietly devastating, he cycles through a whole emotional spectrum with his eyes. He conveys uncertainty, incredulity, and then appears (for a second) to be touched, before finally returning to an iron-like shell of unhinged, lone-wolf determination.
Amazingly, Pattinson, who has long been the butt of many a joke, holds his own against Pearce’s patented brand of laconic ferocity. The younger actor perhaps even eclipses him here, if for no other reason that his performance is so surprising.
Having long been relegated to roles which capitalize on his looks, Pattinson has steadily continued to push himself as an actor, particularly in recent years as he has attempted to escape the sparkly shadow of Edward Cullen. His Rey is an intriguing creature, appearing initially to be little more than a hapless dolt, but slowly revealing an affecting emotional dependency (on Pearce’s character), and a hidden capability for survival.
These facets of the character are revealed slowly by Michôd’s film, which certainly takes its sweet time getting to where its going. Mainly, they come to light through Rey’s interactions with Pearce’s man. After learning that one of the thugs who stole his car is Rey’s brother, Pearce’s character takes (or forces) the younger man with him in a half-crazed attempt to get it back.
Their journey is beautifully photographed by Michôd’s DP Natasha Braier, whose lens captures the breathtaking expanse of the Australian landscape powerfully. The stark, dusty roads and sun-baked vistas are also complimented by Antony Parto’s jarring, experimental score, which intertwines a myriad of different musical styles to keep the viewer off-balance.
Resting somewhere within this aesthetic framework is Michôd’s script, which carries the difficult task of both exploring the slowly evolving dynamic between the two men, while also ruminating on some pretty weighty subject matter. Some have taken his storytelling to task, commenting that The Rover is a film which goes nowhere, and one that trades in simple nihilism. This is erroneous. To understand The Rover one simply has to look at a line from Pattinson’s character, who remarks at one point that, “Not everything has to mean something.”
That is the statement that The Rover turns upon and examines deeply. Does everything have to mean something? Michôd doesn’t provide a clear-cut answer; his film is simply interested in letting this question sit, and allowing it to lead viewers to even more questions. What is “right” and “wrong” in a world with no rules? What is the nature of fraternity? And, most importantly, where does hope come from in a world that has none? Or, as Guy Pearce’s man says to a pompous army leader (who still seems to believe in purpose), “What are you thinking about when your feet are hitting the floor?”
While these may not be overly new concepts, and while the film does laboriously grind towards its conclusion, the cerebral nature of The Rover’s take on the post-apocalyptic film is a (mostly) welcomed reprieve from the brain-dead idiocy of the summer. It’s a pitch black plunge into darkness. It’s a film unafraid of asking the big questions. It’s a story grappling with concepts relevant right now, and at the end of the world.